This cake is for my Mom. Though polarizing to some, we share a love of coconut especially a good cake, cream pie and those old-fashioned macaroons that our old neighborhood grocery store used to have. I’ll figure those out one day. We live 2000 miles apart and sometimes have a rather complicated relationship but that doesn’t diminish my love for her. She’s a great woman and raised two really fantastic, independent, successful and funny daughters. She’s influenced a lot of who I am today, so this little coconut number is for you lady. It’s a lot fancier than the coconut cake I shipped across the country for her birthday many years ago and I think she’d really enjoy it. In fact, I know she’d enjoy it. I fully expect to hear from her about this matter – while she’ll appreciate the thought I’ve presented here, I don’t think she’s going to care much for a “virtual cake.” Ha! Fact is, I’ve had an itch to make a layer cake or three ever since I saw this, and the timing was perfect. Happy Mother’s Day Mom!
The idea started when I was kicking around ideas for what to do with remains of a large bag of White Lily Flour. Believe it or not, one can only make so many biscuits. Whenever I need some quick ideas, I turn to Twitter. It’s such a effective – and instantaneous – tool for moments like this. @Bravetart, also known as Stella Parks a Food & Wine Best New Pastry Chef this year, tweeted back almost immediately that I should make a white cake. With leaf lard. I liked where this was going and it just so happened I had leaf lard in the fridge. It was a sign. Then came this: “It will smell really questionable, for a pastry, but once it’s baked? It will blow your mind. So flavorful.” That sealed the deal. Who isn’t intrigued by the combination of questionable smell and blow-your-mind flavor?
The cake is one of my favorites – tender, delicate, flavorful, a great recipe – and I thought the leaf lard adaption would work well. It’s a girly kind of cake and the addition of lard seemed to butch it up a bit. The quintessential southern belle with an iron fist. If you don’t have White Lily, use cake flour for the best results. And always, always use real vanilla. If you don’t have lard, butter is fine and that’s what I usually use.
The decision to make it coconut happened about 3.2 seconds later. It just seemed to fit. I adapted my standard pastry cream recipe, usually made with half-and-half, to half coconut cream and half whole milk. Regular unsweetened coconut milk would work too, I just happen to prefer the thicker coconut cream when making desserts. Coconut milk is easier to find these days and is stocked in most regular grocery stores but the coconut cream will necessitate a trip to the Asian market. And I’m always looking for any excuse to hit the Asian market. Just make sure you buy the unsweetened kind – this is not the time for Coco Lopez.
Because I was going all out, I really dove in and bought a coconut to make my own coconut chips. The packaged stuff just would be a let down at this point. Sometimes my Whole Foods carries beautiful thick coconut chips but I haven’t seen them in a while and wasn’t about to order them online. So a whole coconut went into my bag. Though the whole process was a pain in the ass, I have to say, they were stunning. A vast improvement over a bag of purchased coconut with a great pure coconut flavor. Plus I had the added bonus of having the fresh coconut water for a very flavorful simple syrup. When purchasing fresh coconuts, select one that seems heavy for it size and feels/sounds like there’s a lot of liquid inside.
So how is it? Mom, I have to tell you … it’s delicious. The coconut flavor is subtle and not overly sweet and cloying. The leaf lard adds a really interesting texture and subtle flavor to the cake that is different from the butter I normally use and highlights the coconut flavor of the custard and buttercream. I like it.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: PERFECT. I find baking layer cakes, especially for someone else, to be deeply satisfying. It’s definitely a project, what with the cake and the syrup and the filling and the icing and the over the top garnish, but when all the pieces of the puzzle come together, the result and the sense of pride is incomparable. Special occasion cakes should be just that: special. Happy Mother’s Day Mom – wish you could enjoy this with me. On the other hand, holy crap, I have a whole delicious cake to myself. I didn’t think this through very well.
SOUTHERN COCONUT LAYER CAKE
Makes one 9” two-layer cake
White Velvet Cake
4 large egg whites (½ cup)
½ cup whole milk
2 ¼ teaspoons vanilla bean paste or extract
2 ¼ cups sifted White Lilly flour (or cake flour)
1 ½ cups sugar
1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
6 ounces leaf lard, room temperature (or unsalted butter)
¾ cup whole milk
- Preheat oven to 350°F with a rack in the lowest position.
- Line the bottom two 9” cake pans with parchment paper circles and spray the pan sides with cooking spray. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the egg whites, ½ cup of milk and vanilla until combined. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, lard and the ¾ cup of milk and mix low until moistened.
- Scrape the bowl then increase the speed to medium and mix for 1 ½ minutes to aerate.
- On low, add the egg white/milk mixture in three additions, beating about 30 seconds between additions. Scrape the bowl and the mix to combine.
- Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans, give them a good rap against the counter to settle any large air bubbles and place on the lowest oven rack.
- Bake 25-30 minutes until the top is golden, firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted just off-center comes out clean with moist crumbs.
- Cool completely in the pans on a wire rack.
Makes about 2 cups
¾ cup whole milk
¾ cup unsweetened coconut cream (or coconut milk)
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste or extract
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons coconut rum, such as Malibu
- Combine the milk and coconut cream in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch until thick and pale yellow.
- Slowly whisk the warm milk into the egg mixture to temper (ie slowly bring up the temperature of the eggs so they don’t curdle) then return the mixture to the pot over medium heat and bring to a boil, whisking constantly, until thickened.
- Scrape the mixture into a bowl and whisk in the vanilla paste (or extract.)
- Let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally to release the heat, then cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface and refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours.
Fresh Coconut Chips
Makes about 2 cups
1 fresh coconut
- Preheat the oven to the lowest possible setting – 150°-200°F ideally.
- First, drain the coconut water from the coconut by poking two holes into the soft “eyes” with an icepick, Phillips head screwdriver or something strong, thin and pointy.
- Pour the coconut water into a bowl through a strainer to catch any debris and set aside.
- Next, whack the coconut open. I found the easiest way to do this was to wrap it in a towel and bash the hell out of it with a hammer. Break it into small manageable pieces.
- Separate the white flesh from the brown outer shell. Sources I sought out said to use a spoon but I found it easiest to carefully insert a paring knife between the two and carefully work and lever the flesh off the shell.
- With a paring knife, trim off any brown skin.
- Thinly slice the coconut flesh. The best and most consistent way to do this is with a mandoline but a vegetable peeler will work in a pinch but the yield will be lower as the smaller pieces will be more challenging to deal with.
- Spread the coconut shreds in a single layer on a heavy-duty sheet pan and place in the oven, stirring every 10 minutes until dry, about 30 minutes total. The shreds will begin to brown – if this is happening too quickly for you, remove from the oven and let air dry.
- Leave the pan out, uncovered, overnight to finish drying. Store at room temperature, tightly covered, for 1-2 months.
Coconut Simple Syrup:
makes about 1 cup
¾ cup coconut water from a fresh coconut (or unsweetened coconut cream or coconut milk or a combination)
¼ cup sugar
- Bring coconut water (or cream or milk) and sugar to a boil, lower to a simmer and cook until sugar is dissolved.
- Let cool completely. Set aside until needed.
Coconut Swiss Buttercream
8 large egg whites (1 cup)
2 cups sugar
pinch of kosher salt
24 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature (6 sticks), cut into Tablespoons
4 teaspoons pure coconut extract
2 teaspoons coconut rum such as Malibu
- Whisk whites, sugar and salt in a heatproof bowl and place over a pot of simmering water – do not let bowl touch the water or let the water boil.
- Whisk gently until hot and sugar has completely dissolved – 140°F– about 3-4 minutes. To test – dip a finger in the mixture and rub fingers together. If it feels gritty, the sugar hasn’t fully dissolved and needs another minute or two.
- Transfer mixture to the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and whip on high until thick and completely cooled – about 5-8 minutes.
- Beat in the room temperature butter, piece by piece until smooth.
- Once all the butter is incorporated, beat in the coconut extract and coconut rum until incorporated.
- Use immediately or refrigerate (up to 5 days) or freeze (up to 2 months) until ready to use. If refrigerated/frozen, bring to room temperature and beat again until smooth.
- Trouble shooting:
- If the buttercream separates = the mixture is too cold to emulsify (it will look like loosely scrambled eggs) Fix: warm the mixture slightly by immersing the bottom of the bowl briefly into hot water or use a mini blowtorch if you have one, then continue beating.
- If too soupy/liquid = the meringue was too warm and melted the butter rather than emulsifying. Fix: chill the buttercream slightly and rewhip until smooth.
- If the butter stays in chunks and doesn’t blend = the butter is too cold. You can either leave the bowl out a room temperature and let it warm up naturally or you can hurry it along by immersing the bottom of the bowl into hot water or give it a couple blasts from a mini blowtorch.
BUILD THE CAKE:
- Turn the cooled cakes out of the pans.
- Turn the cakes right side up and trim the tops if domed or uneven.
- Place a dollop of buttercream on a platter or cake board to hold the cake in place.
- For the most even, stable cake build in reverse so the bottom becomes the top layer. So flip one cake layer on top of the platter or cake board and remove the parchment circle.
- Brush the cake with the cooled coconut simple syrup.
- Place a scoop or two of buttercream in a piping bag or Ziploc (without a pastry tip), cut off the corner/tip and pipe a ring of buttercream around the cake edge to form a dam.
- Carefully spoon the cooled coconut custard in the center and smooth evenly with an offset spatula.
- Top with the second cake layer, cake bottom up, remove the parchment circle and brush the top with simple syrup.
- Ice the top and sides with a thin coat of buttercream and refrigerate at least 30 minutes until set. This is the “Crumb Coat” and the final icing will look much better if you don’t skip this step.
- Once the buttercream is firm, ice the cake with a thicker, even layer of buttercream.
- Press the shaved coconut chips into the cake top and sides.
- Refrigerate the cake until 1 hour before serving then let it come to room temperature. Store leftovers in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped.